Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
February 18, 2015
Some time ago, I got a handwritten letter from a former student. It arrived several days before I was due to preach at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church, in Kirkland, WA, and I decided to craft my response as a kind of homiletical open letter, which I both mailed to him and delivered from the pulpit. I’m not sure how much my young friend benefitted from my reply, but a number of persons who “overheard” it in church found it useful and asked for copies. I am thus venturing to publish this exchange of letters in this blog. This post contains my student’s letter and the first half of my response. The second half will be published in next week’s post.
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Dear Dr. Steele,
This is a letter of apology and explanation: an apology for not writing you as I should have and an explanation for why I have put it off for so long. To be clear, I don’t believe my explanation in any way justifies my failure to communicate, but I do hope that it can explain why I chose this over other options.
To begin with, during my time in Africa, I have been struggling tremendously with depression and self-worth. While the more logical and analytical side of me knows that there is little reason to feel inadequate, I have been wracked with uncertainty, doubt, and a feeling of certainty that I will never amount to anything valuable. These feelings have largely expressed themselves in the form of a mild misanthropy and a moderate feeling of agoraphobia. I have neither wanted to be around people, nor have I been comfortable engaging in social events. This is very much the opposite of how I have felt in life prior to this point, so I am very much aware of the wrongness of this attitude. I have been in counseling for this depression since November, but it has been a hard slog.
Secondly, I have news that I have been afraid to tell you: I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t know what I am precisely, but it seems to me that some modicum of belief in God or Jesus as Savior or any other handful of essential doctrinal beliefs is necessary to call oneself a Christian. Honestly, I partially hope this lack of faith is a result of my depression, but I fear that the arguments just don’t quite go through, and lacking some other eye-opening experience of god, I don’t know what would bring me back to Christianity.
I’m sorry if this news comes as a surprise to you and I hope you can imagine the worry that comes with this telling a pastor/theologian that you’ve lost your faith, not to mention the deeper relationship of friendship. In the midst of my anxious and depressive thinking, I have worried tremendously, and most likely falsely, that you will judge me for this lack of faith. I realize how silly that must sound, because if anything, all evidence points to you being kind and caring, not judgmental.
I would be happy to share some of Holly’s and my experience in Africa with you, but I needed to get this off my chest. It’s been heavy on my heart and I am finally able to share these things with you. Again, I’m sorry that I have not communicated. I hope that you can forgive me that failing.
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Here’s my reply:
Thank you for your letter of May 14, which arrived yesterday. And thank you for the courage and candor with which you have written your “apology and explanation.” In responding, I must make an apology and explanation of my own. It is not my custom to break confidences, and I certainly don’t intend to break yours, at least in the sense that I don’t intend to disclose your name or any details of your letter that might enable anyone to identify you. But I do intend to read part of your letter and part of this reply in the Sunday Eucharist service at which I will be presiding tomorrow. The reason for this is that several of the issues which your letter raises relate closely to the appointed Scripture lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year B. So I am going to kill two birds with one stone by using my reply to you as my sermon for tomorrow. You may want to read the lessons before proceeding. Here’s a link to the New Common Lectionary for your reference.
First, let me say that the contents of your letter don’t come as a complete surprise to me. I saw Holly’s family a couple weeks ago, and her mother mentioned very briefly that you were struggling with religious doubts, although she didn’t say anything about your depression. So you and Holly have been very much in my thoughts, and I’m very glad to have gotten your thorough account of the situation. Second, although I certainly can imagine your worries about sharing these matters with me, I don’t regard them as silly, and I want to assure you that I haven’t lost the slightest bit of respect, admiration, or affection for you. It would be disingenuous to say that I feel more respect, admiration and affection for you because of your letter, nor do I think you’d want me to say that, even if it were true. I don’t intend to “bless” your depression and doubt as such, and I presume from the fact that you “partially hope that [your] lack of faith is a result of [your] depression,” that you also hope your faith will return when your depression lifts. I share that hope, and I won’t pretend to “approve” of the malaise from which you are rightly seeking relief. But I certainly commend you for working through your depression and doubt with a counselor and for opening your heart to your family and friends. So be assured of this: you needn’t worry that your self-disclosures have impaired our relationship in the slightest. Indeed, I’m quite honored that you continue to think enough of me to allow me this latest opportunity to kindly, caringly and non-judgmentally take you out to the woodshed.
Third, before getting to the matter of religious doubt, I want to say a few things about your depression. But I want to be very careful in doing so, because depression is a very complicated phenomenon, and I have no wish either to over-simplify or trivialize it. So I’m going to be rather general here, in hopes that you and I can have a longer talk about this when you and Holly return to Washington (as Holly’s mother told me you are planning to do in the next few weeks). Moreover, I’m guessing that your depression is getting at least as much “air time” in your counseling sessions as your religious doubts, so I probably don’t have much to add to what you are already covering there. I will say, however, that there probably is some correlation between the height of your goals and the depth of your funk. If you didn’t expect great things of yourself, you wouldn’t be worried by the thought of not accomplishing much. The easy solution would be to stop expecting much of yourself, and simply redefine yourself as a mediocrity. If you’ve ever seen the movie Amadeus, you’ll recall that that was the route Salieri took after he had encountered the genius of Mozart. Previously, he had grown quite self-satisfied as a composer. But when he heard the music of Mozart, it destroyed him. He couldn’t bear to be merely “good” at his craft—he had to be the “best.” But he knew that Mozart was better. Salieri’s real failure was not in his musicianship, but in his character. He couldn’t accept his limitations. He didn’t see his disillusionment as liberation from his illusions. Attaining spiritual maturity and emotional balance is the greatest task in life, and it doesn’t take genius. It just takes fearless honesty. It requires that we accept our talents for what they are, modest as they may be, and then joyfully offer them to the world. You say, Matthew, that you are “wracked with uncertainty, doubt, and a feeling that you will never amount to anything valuable.” But what would “amounting to something valuable” look like? Being a genius? Being world-famous? If that’s what you think, you’re confusing value with intellect or reputation. There was once a Hasidic rabbi named Zusia, who told his disciples: “When I get to heaven, the Almighty won’t ask me why I wasn’t Moses or why I wasn’t Joshua. He’ll ask me why I wasn’t Zusia.”
(To be continued in next week’s blog post, click here.)